To the young Cheryl Diamond, life felt like one big adventure, whether she was hurtling down the Himalayas in a rickety car or mingling with underworld fixers. Her family seemed like an unbreakable gang of five as they crossed continents and changed identities. What Diamond didn’t yet know was that she was born into a family of outlaws fleeing from the highest international law enforcement agencies— a family with secrets that would catch up to all of them. Wild, heart-wrenching, and unexpectedly funny, Nowhere Girl is an inspiring coming-of-age memoir about running for freedom against the odds.
Memoirs about crime families are a varied subcategory of the genre. Some memoirs lightly touch on a family’s history with crime, and others lean deeply into true crime writing. I know I’m not the only person with a complicated feelings about my own attraction to true crime. There’s something deeply human about reading fascinating stories of criminal behavior. It can be a means of hoping for justice in this world, even knowing how flawed the pursuit of justice is. Moreover, it’s certainly human, though not admirable, to bask in the relief of avoiding a cruel fate (so far).
There are plenty of even unhealthier angles to the true crime phenomenon. The stories can be exploitative of victims. Sometimes authors romanticize criminals. Additionally, there are patterns regarding race, gender, and class predicting whose stories receive obsessive attention. And how crime stories intersect with systems of policing is thorny, to say the least. As with any problematic fave, some nuanced consideration can go a long way. That’s where memoirs about crime families come in.
Why Read Memoirs About Crime Families?
These memoirs about crime families can bring some mindfulness to the practice of consuming gripping narratives of violence and mayhem. They can provide deep insider knowledge to readers interested in organized crime. Or very disorganized crime, as the case may be. In addition, many memoirs demonstrate how families can be collateral damage in a criminal’s path of destruction. And for those of us who have complicated relationships with our families? Well, there’s certainly something to relate to when another family’s dysfunction is a matter of public record.
I’ve rounded up some of the best memoirs about crime families. There’s a variety of kinds of crime, from mobs to cults to drug running. I’ve also taken a broad approach to the themes. Some of these memoirs provide perspective what behavior is criminalized and what isn’t. Some detail crimes that never resulted in prosecutions or even arrests. But they all tell compelling tales.
Trigger warnings: mention of sexual assault, addiction, child abuse
No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run by Tyler Wetherall
In the realm of unimaginable childhoods, Tyler Wetherall’s is quite out there. She grew up, as the subtitle suggests, on the run, with her family frequently moving and assuming new identities. This was an effort to outrun her father’s past as a smuggler of marijuana. That effort failed at last on Wetherall’s 12th birthday, with her father’s arrest by the Scotland Yard. This candid account of growing up a fugitive sheds light on the author’s own self-destructive tendencies. Specifically, how those tendencies can sometimes be traced to the source.
Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle Allen
There are plenty of books out there that discuss the issues of mass incarceration in the United States. Many also include astute examinations of public policy. Danielle Allen, a political scientist and professor at Harvard University, ties together her expertise with heartbreaking memoir writing. The story centers on her relationship with her cousin Michael. He was sentenced to prison at age 15, then shot and killed three years after his release. The book shows how easily a beloved family member became caught up in a system that destroys promising young lives.
Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder by Leah Carroll
It takes only an ounce of compassion to see that the criminalization of addiction and mental illness has dire consequences for people who are in need of help rather than punishment. Leah Carroll’s mother, who struggled with addiction, was murdered by drug dealers with Mafia connections when the author was only 4 years old. This memoir illuminates the mystery of her mother’s murder and why her killer received such a light sentence. Ultimately, it provides a riveting exploration of both memories and public records in this quest for truth.
Breaking Free: How I Escaped My Father — Warren Jeffs — Polygamy, and the FLDS Cult by Rachel Jeffs
Many of us who are eager crime readers also devour books about cults. It’s often difficult to ascertain whether activities associated with cults are criminal. That’s kind of their deal. But in Warren Jeffs’s case, it’s crystal clear. The man was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, after all. This harrowing account of life in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints lays bare the horrifically cruel treatment of the women and children trapped in this cult. Specifically, the plight of the daughter of the self-proclaimed prophet.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
It feels reductive to place this memoir in the category of “criminal family memoir.” Yes, Ford’s father was incarcerated for essentially the entirety of her youth. And eventually she learned that his crime was rape. His absence and her discovery of his crime are important threads in the tapestry of her story. But don’t expect grisly details or a look into the criminal mind. Ford, too, was a victim of crimes that went unaddressed, a grim reminder of the utter pervasiveness of crimes like child abuse. Despite her struggles, Ford forges a path to find the love and safety she lacked. Additionally, she writes with incredible grace about the fraught relationships in her life.
Yakuza Moon: The True Story of a Gangster’s Daughter by Shōko Tendō
Tendō first wrote her account of growing up among Japanese organized crime in a print memoir, which was then adapted into this graphic version. It’s ideal for those who are fascinated by organized crime and especially the renowned tattooing traditions among yakuza members. The author herself includes the stories behind her tattoos in her memoir. She also recounts her own involvement in the gangster life she was born into. Those who understand the urge to seek out tattoos or other body modifications as a means of control will be able to relate.
Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir by Kambri Crews
A running theme in criminal family memoirs is the tension between family life and a life of crime. In the same vein, this book explores the evolution of the author’s relationship with her father, a relationship vacillating between love and fear. As Crews wrote the book, her father was serving a 20-year sentence for assault and attempted murder. The added tension in this book is with the author’s identity as a child of Deaf adults, placing her at the nexus of two cultures. This memoir is a candid reflection on what Crews’s unique upbringing has meant for her.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
The Fact of a Body is an essential part of the true crime canon, in my opinion. It deftly weaves true crime, memoir, and legal thriller together. The crimes investigated in this book cascade from one outside of Marzano-Lesnevich’s family to ones within the family, and ones long past. The effect is an incredibly thought-provoking work on the relationship between trauma and crime. The complexities of the narratives people construct to deal with trauma make this an effecting, unforgettable read.
For the Sins of My Father: A Mafia Killer, His Son, and the Legacy of a Mob Life by Albert Demeo
One cannot have a list of criminal family memoirs without at least one book chronicling a life in the Mafia. There are plenty such books out there. However, few capture such a portrait of someone who compartmentalizes his life, allowing him to swing between professionally violent monster and affectionate family man in a snap. Roy DeMeo, a hitman for the Gambino crime family, and the father of the author, mastered that art. DeMeo’s story includes the gradual unspooling of the truth about what exactly his dad did for a living. Eventually, he too became caught up in his father’s affairs.
Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter by Maria Venegas
Sometimes the way to get someone to open up is to engage in an activity that creates space for storytelling. For example, some people fish, play video games, or make quilts together. In Venegas’s case, chores on the Mexican hacienda where she was visiting her father facilitated communication following a 14-year estrangement. The stories her father tells her while they fix fences and herd cattle shed light on his violent past, beginning when he first shot a man at age 12. Like many criminal family memoirs, this one walks a knife’s edge with tenderness on one side and villainy on the other.
If you’re looking for more, we’ve got 50 recommendations in both true crime and memoir. Additionally, we’ve got novels about criminal families and more unique crime books across genres. Ultimately, the variety of books exploring crime and family available shows Tolstoy wasn’t kidding around about unhappy families.!doctype>